A proposed Chattanooga budget that allocates 28 percent to law enforcement was unanimously criticized by over 100 community members at Tuesday’s hours-long City Council meeting. Over $70 million of the city budget will go toward the police. Dominant themes included divesting money from police and into youth and family development centers, CARTA, and infrastructure.
Afterward, Councilman Darrin Ledford said he "disagreed strongly with comments made last night that police 'have no place in our community.' "
He also said, "The public hearing on the budget was a very well organized advocacy effort. I will be talking with CPD this week to verify some of the statistical claims made last night.
"Mental health and homelessness are two very important discussions that need the right solutions.
"During the recent tornado that ripped through East Brainerd, our Chattanooga Police Department was there immediately and showed extraordinary dedication and commitment to the people of our city.
"During the budget process, I will continue to speak with the people of District 4."
The County Commission meeting was extended from 9:30 a.m. to almost 1:30 p.m. with a host of callers saying they wanted the Sheriff's Department "defunded" and the money to go to the county schools, arts programs, social workers and mental health services.
One said that those who take part in defacing and destroying monuments will be seen as "heroes" in the future.
The commission finally invoked a rule that says a delegation with specific issues is limited to 10 minutes.
Commissioners David Sharpe and Warren Mackey wanted to continue hearing from the protesters. Commissioner Sabrena Smedley said, "I very much understand what they are saying. But we could sit here all day and hear the same thing."
Marie Mott, a potential candidate for City Council District 8 and a protest leader, had a scathing criticism of the Chattanooga budget at City Council. She said, "We’ve been in this struggle for years, and we are no longer asking, we are demanding. Let us be emphatically clear, our demands are directed toward the mayor, who is responsible for this disgrace of a budget. We have a council with no balls to break the cycle of what this mayor has done, and continues to rubber stamp everything he wants.”
Ben Campbell, one of the first speakers, immediately went after Mayor Andy Berke’s leadership. Only four percent of the budget goes to Youth and Family Development.
He said, “Chattanooga’s officials and its mayor project a façade to the rest of the country as a great place to vacation and a safe environment. But in reality, we have deeply failed people in front of their faces, more specifically the black and brown communities. With police allocated 28 percent of the budget, or $71 million, it’s quite clear where the City Council’s and mayor’s priorities lie. It’s no longer a question of if you will divest from our police department, but when will you divest?”
Cameron "C-Grimey" Williams, another protest leader, said YFD centers in predominantly white areas have amenities that centers in predominantly-black centers do not.
“I would like to see divestment in the police department and other places where we are wasting funds, and we could instead be putting them in the YFD centers,” said Mr. Williams. “Our YFD centers deserve to have technology centers and maker spaces, and they deserve to be fully staffed with competent people who know how to deal with children. They deserve to have the resources our white counterparts have in their schools and libraries.”
He then spent time to point the council’s attention toward what many see as the dismal state of public transportation in Chattanooga.
“It takes people two buses and two or three hours to get to work if you have to go across town, and that is a disgrace,” said Mr. Williams. “I believe that many of you on the council are great people who would like to see these good things happen in our community. We the people have put blood, sweat, and tears working on many of your campaigns. Election time is coming up, so how would you like to be remembered?”
Josue Carrillo said CARTA is lacking in several areas and desperately needs more funding in order to address these shortcomings."
He said, “Most transit users live in under-served communities with a lack of access to frequency, because CARTA does not run on Sundays. That’s under-serving our needs to move around in our Scenic City, and we need more money to go to the failing technology that CARTA has at bus stops, and to make major improvements to their website. We should not have our arms twisted behind our back because we need to get to our point.”
Others spoke about food deserts in the West Side of Chattanooga, while saying the wealthier North Shore area has plenty of choices when it comes to not only food, but obtaining healthy food. Jaclyn Michael and Mercedes Bolton asked why the city continually invests in expensive projects as the underprivileged areas of Chattanooga continue to have multiple needs.
“When you say defund the budget, we essentially mean that black and brown communities are asking for the same budget priorities that white communities have already created for themselves,” said Ms. Michael. “Things as essential as grocery stores, people in the West Side don’t have a grocery store. But you go to the North Shore and there’s a Whole Foods and a Publix almost right next to each other. Is that the kind of city you want to live in?”
“In the West Side, there is no grocery store and nowhere for families to get groceries to feed their children,” said Ms. Bolton. “We have plenty of new condos, multi-million-dollar hotels, Tennessee’s largest aquarium, and all for tourism. Why do we care more about showing tourists a good time than respecting your citizens’ humanity.”
Brie Stevens, another vocal organizer of the Chattanooga marches, asked the Council to invest in the community by divesting from the police.
“I ask that Chattanooga take a look at how they have treated residents of color in their history,” said Ms. Stevens. “How they have pushed out projects and pushed out people of color in the Innovation District and people of color who have made this city great and have added to the fabric of this city. I ask that we divest from the police and invest in the community for things like community transportation, neighborhood safety, and other things that strip away the police’s ability to take away a person’s life.”
Tamara Woodard was emotional as she asked why the city has ample funding for police while other communities do not receive funds for essential services. She alluded to police brutality, and the tear-gasing of protesters during one protest on May 31, although it was the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department who used tear gas when deputies said a crowd was trying to get into the County Courthouse.
“I would like to say divest. I’d like to say there is funding available for gassing Chattanooga residents, and police that stood by as protesters were hit by a car,” said Ms. Woodard. “There was funding for police to terrorize an eight-year-old child protester. But there’s little or limited or no funding for that same eight-year-old to have swim lessons at Warner Park or Brainerd Recreation Center.”
A local attorney also advocated for divesting into the police. Chad Wilson wondered aloud how investing in the community could monetarily benefit people of color, while simultaneously calling the city “over-policed.”
“I work for the working poor and people of color, and I’m in the courthouse every day. We are over-policed,” said attorney Wilson. “There are 30,000 criminal cases in this city every year, mostly black and brown and the working poor. Eighty to 90 percent of my clients are people of color, and they are immorally, unjustly over-policed. It makes no fiscal sense to over-police them. Just one or two of my clients, if they could get a job or had mental healthcare intervention rather than police intervention, then they could multiply our (city’s) dollars hundred-fold.”
A few of the speakers were Chattanooga teachers, who said they often see first-hand how under-funded communities can stunt a child’s growth, and how children in the black community perceive the police.
“I’m a public school in Chattanooga, and I see my children come home and not have access to food unless they eat in school,” said teacher Tucker McGuinness. “I see them go home to communities with no resources for early learning, and their parents don’t have access to career development, and the children don’t have access to recreation centers that are funded properly. I would like to see the city invest in those neighborhoods and build up the futures of our black and brown communities.”
“I am a pastor at Renaissance Presbyterian Church, a primarily Black church located in the west side,” said Trisha Dillon Thomas. “A couple of nights ago when I pulled into the parking lot, some children ran up to me and said, 'Pastor Trisha, did you hear they killed a black man and put his knee on his neck for nine minutes.' These children are between the ages of four and nine years old, and what they know is that the police are scary, can be violent, and can kill people, especially black people.”
Social worker Holly Christopher, like a few others, pondered why police are required to fill so many roles. She said there are social workers and trained professionals who can help diffuse situations police are not trained for.
“I’d like to see us add social workers to our police force,” said Ms. Christopher. “Not necessarily take away the police, since we’re not ready for that. I think there’s a lot of people who would be terrified if we took away police, but what if we sent a social worker with them. How many of those visits did the officer go to that a social worker could have done instead?”
Mayoral candidate Monty Bruell was among the many who advocated for change in the city’s budget. He listed statistics pertaining to the non-white community of Chattanooga, and asked for a more “equitable” budget.
“Over the last 10 days, we have witnessed true democracy in action. What began as peaceful protests in response to the murder of George Floyd has led to an appeal for human rights,” said Mr. Bruell. “These demands provide a road map to a more equitable and inclusive Chattanooga. Today we live in a city who has a 35 percent child poverty rate, where two thirds of these households are headed by single women. The median income of white families is twice that of African-American families, and yet 28 percent of the city budget goes to the police department.”
Jade Watts said the term “defunding the police” could be considered a radical idea. However, she asked the council to imagine a city where the black and brown communities were given the same funding and resources white communities are given access to.
“Some people say that asking to “defund the police” is considered inflammatory. Well, passionate dreams tend to be inflammatory,” said Ms. Watts. “What would Chattanooga look like if instead of being policed and surveilled, black and brown communities were given access to wealth?”
The Zoom meeting started at 6 p.m. and went well midnight.
At 12:05 a.m., there were 45 speakers still in line, and the council was listening to all.
Councilwoman Carol Berz, who heads the budget committee, was moderating.